Wrestling self-help language from Neoliberal-speak (self-help in a ‘cult of self-belief’)

This will be a clumsy post, a jumble of ad-libbing thoughts that have nonetheless been a concern at a deeply personal level over the past few years.

I don’t think my politics has ever changed, really. The deep sense of bad and good (or healthy or unhealthy, through the language I so far identify as ‘Spinozan’) is still the same.  What has had to change is my way of going about things. This is because after years of telling myself, ‘I’ll become a better person, rid myself of bad life practices, and bouts of regretful actions, when society changes and I can be free’, I realised I couldn’t do anything towards the greater production of ‘healthy’ from such a position.

No matter how many blogs I wrote, drawings I made about the environmental, social, mental and spiritual ills delivered by capitalism, no saviour ever arrived. Of course I didn’t officially believe I would be saved; but deep down I was certainly dependent on something swooping in, magically fusing my abstract pictures with my body, from where I could act in life the way I wished before it was too late. Until then, it seemed, I’d be a limbo[id], waiting, trying harder and harder to elaborate on ‘this great big thing’ stood in the way of living to my true capacities.

I’d use others as examples, only to ultimately feel hollow when that person ‘got on’, found a life for themselves. I wouldn’t call it jealously, just a deep deep sense of loneliness. I wanted my story to be other peoples’ story too (surely if it became all of our stories, then society would change!?). But I felt stuck, unable to move forward in life, side-tracking with a thousand million exhausting jokes to entertain people in the hope they’d give me some magical validation, and nearly as many stupid drunken texts, ever more desperately seeking the deliverance of a the self I couldn’t locate.

I’m not seeking any sort of sympathy (maybe a little forgiveness where I see fit). We all make mistakes, and many will share my story, no matter what their politics is, or whether they even mentally engage with ‘good and healthy’ on a political level. It is the story of losing, for whatever reasons, the capacity to act in the way we would wish, and falling into a state of assumed disempowerment to do anything else but hold on.

This, however, is where politics cannot be simply brushed aside as irrelevant to our personal stories of self-help, ‘self-actualisation'(if you must). Initially, I’m not talking about a certain idea of politics, or even the realities of the politics of different social structures, but that, to clumsily quote the psychiatrist David Smail, we are born into a world made up of forces far more powerful than ourselves. Some of us are enabled more at those crucial formative years than others, but none of us are immune from being shaped, and informed by the social forces we encounter.

Although I’m not directly communicating about what those specific forces may or may not be, nobody should be hostile to accepting this – it shouldn’t have to change your own story, or life path you have chosen. Seriously, I’m no in the habit of dismissing anybody’s life plans; they are an affirmation of life – it’s when we don’t have life-affirming strategies that we are more likely to do harm. Yet, similarly, we can all recall moments of feeling empowerment or disempowered due to situations largely out of our control, and some of us recognise these moments have shaped us.

Yet, even if I ,thus far, do not feel I have developed a useful language to employ this beyond my own life story, I have to try to define a difference between pure self-help and what I call our ‘cult of self-belief’ or the neoliberal-speak of post-industrial capitalism. Nobody can deny that the world we inhabit, the world we have inhabited for a few decades, is full of language and slogans based upon improving our personal stories. Some may find them inspiring. I’ll admit I’ve always found them deeply insulting, but perhaps never fully know why.

Let’s put it this way: from some point in early adulthood, the words ‘you need to get a job’ felt like a kick in the chest. Nobody would deny my work ethic, my willingness to work, my punctuality. Yet the aforementioned words, spoken, or seen written down, could kick me where it hurt the most: my self-worth.

In hindsight, I was reading these words in this way: ‘take leadership in your life, choose what you want to be, and be it, now! right now, this very minute!’ I’d no idea this is what caused the anxiety, because I hadn’t fully recognised how indifferent I was to the leadership of my life. Yes, I was anxious of a full time job taking up my time to my make my drawings about ‘the state of things’, but I was anxious because I could only ever imagine a job role negatively, because I never even realised that I had no confidence in myself to do any ‘proper’ job that wouldn’t bring misery.

However, this is the reality for so many. Much contempoary work does bring misery, we are an overworked society, and are likely to be resentful towards anybody who isn’t as overworked as we are. Yet we have to assigned those ‘choices’ to do that work to ourselves, because we are in a culture that endorses taking leadership of our lives as the only game in town.

I assign the term ‘the cult of self-belief’ to our post-industrial age of neoliberalism. It is constantly telling us to be the best we can. We never feel good enough because this ‘best’ isn’t actually on our own terms. We are being asked to be our very best to a rigid idea of a self that only ever leaves work production to maintain their health and fitness. This is kind of evidential, it’s everywhere in our cities, most notably in the language used to promote a new development project.

Yet what’s hard to both do, personally, and to communicate in sound, positive language, is to separate one’s plans and strategies for self-help from this culture. YouTube is awash with adverts of entrepreneurs with positive mindsets, telling you how their positive attitude, and self-belief got them to where they are. But not all of us want to be entrepreneurs, and maybe not all entrepreneurs want to be mega rich? But surely we all want to live to our full capacities?

I spent years resentful of this self-improvement language because I felt constantly pressured to be the person I wanted to be, but it wasn’t the person I wanted to be! I spent many years being a ghost, evading self-actualising, because I couldn’t imagine it beyond this language; being officially liberated, whilst actually subordinated to neoliberalism.

But just because this language has been taken up by neoliberalism, it doesn’t mean it owns the ideas of self-help and self-improvement. I want to now take leadership of my life on a vague basis of living well, towards myself and others, in a way I haven’t before. It isn’t easy to do this outside of ‘the cult of self-belief’, yet I can’t see what good I can do myself, or others, if I don’t somehow achieve something similar to taking this leadership of my life.

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